When: Tuesday, 7pm
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum
Overview: The Tigers will put away their body armor from the slug fest with Illinois and dust off those track shoes from the Georgia State game to take on a team very similar to what came to town in the first round. Like Georgia State, Belmont features very good skill on the perimeter and four guys averaging double figures. The Bruins are in the top 20 in points per game (18), assists per game (17), and team FG% (2nd). They shoot nearly 40% from 3-point range as a team and have three guys with 60 makes or more and two more with 20. Meanwhile, Clemson's leading 3-point maker is K.J. McDaniels with 39 makes. To me, playing Georgia State is really going to pay off in the preparation for this game. They aren't mirror images, but the heavy ball screen action and perimeter orientation is a lot like what the Tigers had to deal with in the first round. Unfortunately the Tigers will not have the services of Jaron Blossomgame whose athleticism and versatility really comes in handy against teams like Belmont who pick and pop their bigs a good bit. Jaron also offers the chance to switch the ball screens up top. I predict we will see a lot of the small lineup Brad used early against Illinois.
Somehow the NIT and ESPN (mostly ESPN) decided to let Belmont play a full two days before the Tigers and Illini, so they will be well rested. Belmont has played some heavy competition this year including the Tarholes, whom they beat in the Dean Dome (add another to the list of those who have done this before us...but I digress), Kentucky, and VCU, but it has been a while since they have seen high major D1 caliber athletes. Belmont benefitted from Robert Morris' upset of St. John's as well as Green Bay missing its top player in the first round. However, it should be noted Clemson clearly caught a break with Illinois having to travel for the NIT (though if UGA is a 2 seed, it was a major joke that we were a 3, as Ryan Kantor pointed out). I used to coach a player who went to Belmont and have followed their program ever since. They are well coached and really maximize their talent. But, there are some very good reasons to like Clemson in this game:
- Clemson has done very very well against teams I would compare in style and ability to Belmont. Davidson, whom we destroyed in Charleston 85-54 in one of the best performances a Brownell team has put out there. VMI, whom we smoked in Littlejohn 80-50, and Georgia State whom we dispatched 78-66. The closest ACC comparison would be Boston College whom the Tigers beat 62-60 on the road. You can throw Duke in their a little but Belmont has nothing close to Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood inside. Even still, Clemson beat the Devils 72-59 and then were an eyelash (and ref's whistle) from beating them again in the ACC tourney.
- It is harder for teams that rely on skill and shooting to adjust to a physical defensive squad that can block shots from anywhere than it is for the defensive team to adjust to the skill. The Tiger players have looked as good or better on offense against the teams mentioned in the first bullet than any other team on its schedule. When you don't feature physical guys that can protect the rim against the Clemson guards and wings, that motion offense really starts to cause problems.
- Clemson doesn't rely on overplay and pressure. Though the Tigers play aggressively on the ball, they don't overplay the wings very much and so the #1 answer to neutralizing the athleticism advantage, backdoor cuts, isn't nearly the factor it might be otherwise. The Tigers under Brownell are all about containing the ball. Folks who wondered why Roper played a lot less in the 2nd half on Sunday should look no further in that he wasn't containing the dribble vs. the physical Illini guards. The few times the Tigers do get beat, Nnoko and McDaniels have been able to send some messages with emphatic blocks (and I don't care what you say, no player is unaffected by getting his shot thrown or pinned). For example:
- Groce from Illinois pointed out the open looks they got from 3. This is true, and the Tigers are fortunate to a degree that more of those didn't go in, but at the same time this was what Brad was willing to give up in order to protect the rim area. By the time Illinois finally decided they would attack no matter what, Clemson had established a nice lead in the game. Now Clemson will shift its gears to forcing the dribble and seeing if the Bruins want any part of dealing with the Tigers inside defensive presence. Advantage Tigers.
Other than enjoying the hell out of Belmont beating the Tarholes early in the year, I watched nearly all of their matchup with Murray State and former Clemson guard T.J. Sapp. That was a highly entertaining shootout that Belmont pulled out 99 to 96. Neither team was playing much defense as the score shows, but the shot making and play making was impressive and quite a contrast to what Clemson fans are used to seeing. It will be important for Clemson to not let Belmont get rolling from outside or this could be a very dangerous game.
Belmont's leading scorer is J.J. Mann who is putting up 18.3 points per game. Expect Mr. Mann to get introduced to K.J. McDaniels as well as Damarcus Harrison and possibly Austin Ajukwa during the game. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict he goes below that average. However, Clemson going small might move Harrison onto him and K.J. onto Drew Windler.
Next up is 2 guard Craig Bradshaw who is putting up 15.5 points per game. He also is dishing out 3.1 assists per game as well, which is impressive when you consider Clemson only has one guy on the team averaging more than 2 assists (Rod Hall at 3.9). Depending on who starts, we could see Rod Hall, Harrison, or even Roper on Bradshaw.
Belmont's point guard is Reece Chamberlain who has been very impressive at 11 points and 5.4 assists per game. Usually you can bank on Hall drawing the opposing 1, but if Clemson starts small you could see Roper on Chamberlain. I have a feeling we might see Filer more in this game for his defensive prowess, but Lord knows he is going to need to take care of the basketball.
The dangerous guy in my mind is starting 4 man Drew Windler. He's shot an incredible 79-171 from 3 which is 46%. After seeing Jon Ekey from Illinois nearly shoot Clemson out of the tourney, you have to be wary of another big guy with range doing similar damage. This is where not having Blossomgame available hurts because he could check Windler on the perimeter and allow K.J. to concentrate on Mann. The ball screens will be coming so communication will be very important.
KenPom likes the Tigers once again at a whopping 78% chance of victory (biggest of the tourney so far). This isn't factoring in the Blossomgame injury, but reflects the matchup headache Clemson is for Belmont. How are they going to deal with Nnoko's increasing post presence? How can they possibly expect to match up with McDaniels? Harrison and Hall are no slouch athletes in their own right. Belmont is a mostly man to man team, but nothing close to Illinois in that regard. I would expect some junk and zone looks out of the Bruins to try to contain the athletic Tigers.
To me, Belmont's only hope is to get off to a good start and produce at or near their #2 in the nation 57.9 offensive efficiency rating. Clemson should own the boards in this one, though that was the prediction for the Georgia State game and it actually didn't materialize like we thought. The Bruins must also find some kind of way to get K.J. or Nnoko off the floor for extended periods of time. In my estimation, they cannot match up with either at all. They also need to hope Rod Hall plays like he did against Illinois, but whoever they match on him will be the target of Hall's physical dribble drive game and thus subject to foul trouble. They do a decent job of forcing turnovers and that will certainly need to happen against the Tigers who can be guilty of that from time to time. However, Belmont doesn't protect the ball as well as Georgia State or Illinois and could be turned over themselves. Should Belmont approach 15 turnovers or more in this one (they average 13 a game), it will be lights out for them.